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Empathy vs. Sympathy | Simplafyi

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

–Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO)

As WHO noted more than 70 years ago, mental health is a critical component of overall health. October 10th is World Mental Health Day, an advocacy and awareness program established 30 years ago by the World Federation of Mental Health (WFMH). This year, the theme is “Make Mental Health & Well-Being for All a Global Priority.”

What can we, as individuals, do to address mental health on a worldwide scale? When you consider just the United States alone, the problem seems daunting enough: 1

  • Nearly 50 million American adults – 20% of the adult population — have a mental illness.
  • Over half (27 million) receive no treatment.

Let’s start in our own homes, at work, and in our communities.

Small Steps Help Change the World

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), one of the main reasons people don’t seek treatment for mental illness is the fear of judgment. They are concerned about being treated differently or even losing their jobs. In a word, it’s stigma.2

Such fears appear to be warranted. A 2016 study found that globally, people with mental illness are believed to offer less value to society than those without it.3

One step we can take is to improve our ability to be empathetic. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another … without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” By contrast, the definition of sympathy is, “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.” Put simply, empathy is the ability to imagine, accept, and understand someone else’s challenges and hurt without actually sharing the same experience.

Perhaps an even better illustration of the difference between sympathy and empathy is this entertaining video by groundbreaking researcher Brené Brown. The moral of Brown’s story is: Don’t try to sugar-coat or make things better for someone when they reach out with a problem. Instead, validate what they’re going through and simply be present for them.

To do that in the context of mental illness, the APA offers a list of conversational dos and don’ts:

Do Say:

  • “Thanks for opening up to me.”
  • “Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that. It must be tough.”
  • “I’m here for you when you need me.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
  • “People do get better.”
  • “Oh man, that sucks.”
  • “Can I drive you to an appointment?”
  • “How are you feeling today?”
  • “I love you.”

Don’t Say:

  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Just deal with it.”
  • “Snap out of it.”
  • “Everyone feels that way sometimes.”
  • “You may have brought this on yourself.”
  • “We’ve all been there.”
  • “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”
  • “Maybe try thinking happier thoughts.”

Good Physical Health Contributes to Good Mental Health

According to the WFMH, employers can also encourage change by cultivating a culture that supports mental wellbeing among their workforce. This includes workplace education that helps de-stigmatize mental illness, benefits that encourage health, wellbeing and exercise, including external engagement efforts that promote access to nutritional foods in the communities where employees and their families live.

We can help by committing to our own wellbeing by enhancing our foundation that contributes to strong mental health. Don’t know where to start or want to explore further? SimplaFYI can help. SimplaFYI is a health & wellbeing company focused on integrative care. We offer a variety of programs for individuals, employers and primary care practices. Learn more: www.simplafyi.com or email us here!

1https://mhanational.org/issues/2022/mental-health-america-adult-data#two

2https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination

3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5007563/

©Carol E. Swanson. All rights reserved.